The Theory of Metal Relativity


The conclusion of the final West Texas Death Fest leaves me with many questions. Jess and Ramon Cazares — the driving force behind The Fest — will relocate soon, and that not only means that this particular show will be no more but also raises the less comfortable question about the sustainability of metal in our area. The WTDF exists because of their devotion and toil. Losing them may mean losing local metal. I’m not writing about this problem here, but the foreboding it causes provides some context for the story I do want to tell.

The Fest experience this year offered the expected benefits: seeing friends and former students, talking to people from different places, and experiencing a kaleidoscope of death metal subgenres. Internally, I like The Fest because I can behave in a more extreme way than I usually do. As a native analyst, the major draw for me is the wealth of musical data, and I spend much of my time standing back and watching, taking pictures, comparing styles, ranking bands. That said, I’m also an extreme personality making my way in a buttoned-up, even urbane, profession where my initial responses to almost everything must be tabled. At The Fest, I can bang my head right off my shoulders and no one cares; in fact, a stranger next to me does exactly that same thing: absorbs the musical energy, processes it through his or her heart, and gives it back through unbridled physical response. The two processes sustain and create each other, like a heavy metal version of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Extreme metal draws — and draws from — extreme mentalities.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Numerous fulfilling moments arose from this Fest. I communed with some people from my home state, talked with musicians, and lost myself in Abolishment of Flesh’s “The Suffering” — that headbanging moment I noted above (and many thanks to the wild redhead next to me, whoever you are, for that moment of anonymous unity headbanging offers). Plainview tech-death band Astringency, who performed immediately before the band that created the moment I’m chronicling, contributed to this experience. They seem to have always gone everywhere together, and their ladies accompany them (some bands brought their parents and kids), so when they are playing, the entire front row knows what’s coming. There is an explosion of headbanging that’s so perfectly timed that it’s a bit of a shock. Many of their fellow townspeople have studied with me at the university, and all of them seem to be musicians. I have surmised that Plainview, TX, seems to produce multi-instrumentalists like other Texas towns produce football teams. Anyway, I was alive after the Astringency set, which was largely new material, humbled and inspired by their astonishing vision and talent. I could have stopped there and been satisfied with The Fest.

But, enough context. The moment has come to attempt a description of the moment that came from the next band’s set. Fields of Elysium, a progressive technical death metal band from Santa Fe, NM, followed Astringency (with whom they had recently toured). I’d seen them a couple of times already. The last time I saw them, they said they wanted to “try a new one; we’ll see how it goes.” It amazed me that they would risk that. They have CDs and a core of fans. They could have just played a show. But they took that extra step.

This time, they said everything was new. I had been listening to them all week before the show. I was expecting to hear some of that music. This announcement reminded me of the risk they had taken the last time I’d seen them. It seemed admirable to me that they would bring their creative process to us like that. I was already so alive from the Astringency set that I just settled in and set the sensors on full.

And perhaps it was this unprepared but receptive state of mind that allowed me to see the magic. They did not play a different version of the same thing. It was better. And they were better. They were better players than the year before, and the year before they had left the audience slack-jawed and enlightened. They were playing their instruments in ways that didn’t even make sense to me. The compositions were different, more intricate, more enlivened. All of the band members focused intently on their playing-no acting, just music. While I was watching one of the guitarists sweep-picking, almost like playing a harp, for some reason, everything suddenly felt funny. I looked behind me and discovered why.

The magic had spread. A spell had settled over the crowd and quelled any moshing or headbanging. Fields of Elysium focused on their instruments, and we focused on them. It was still and silent, two of the last responses you might think a band at an extreme metal fest may elicit.

Then it hit me. Maybe it’s one of the few places such a moment could exist. Maybe a local fest with a community ethos was the just the place for it to happen — a collection of musically-aware extremists. Fields of Elysium brought us something different. They trusted us with their work. This wasn’t about what they’d done. It wasn’t about what they were doing at that moment. It was about what they do. They were out on the edge of possibility, of discovery. They were seeking the next note, the next phrase, the next level. They were seeking the nexus to another awareness that only music can open.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

And they let us watch.

And at that moment, we were no longer fans: we had become witnesses.

And then witness transmogrified into wisdom.

At that moment, we were able to perceive not just the creative process but its goal: the discovery of beauty, which is forever the essence of music, and which for that moment, made even forever a tangible element. It may have been only a minute or two on the clock, but the experience existed as a microcosmic eternity.

And perhaps only a group of extremists possess the ability to be still and silent when stillness and silence constitute the right approach. It’s metal relativity: channeling the atmosphere created by the music, processing it through awareness, and giving it back as the reverent attention the “finite infinity” Fields of Elysium created at that moment required.

The end of the West Texas Death Fest may be inevitable, and no doubt many people will say “That’s life.” While some moments in our lives — such as the diminution of metal in our region—may be tragic, other moments — such as the one described here, are magic.

I hope we do not lose the magic moments.

Photo by Carly Carthel.

Photo by Carly Carthel.

Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory released


If you do not assert the truth, idiots come in and talk endlessly about their vision of it, which other idiots accept as truth, and soon a circle jerk starts where just about everyone thinks the lie is the truth. This is what happened to writing about black metal.

As the genre attempts to recapture itself from the theorists who will convert it into an esoteric sub-field of either Marxism or economics, new books emerge such as the Black Metal Theory (BMT) series advanced by the same people behind the symposium Hideous Gnosis. The latest from that group, Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory, collects writings published on BMT “focusing on mysticism, a domain of thought and experience with deep connections both to the black metal genre and to theory (as theoria, vision, contemplation). More than a topic for BMT, the mystical is here explored in terms of the continuous intersection between black metal and theory, the ‘floating tomb’ wherein black metal is elevated into the intellectual and visionary experience that it already is.”

Listening single-mindedly is the only way to appreciate metal


Metal worth listening to is worth listening to properly. You listen properly by listening single-mindedly. This means that you set aside everything else and put your focus on the music. Although our society places a false premium on time, this is even more important when you have little time: make the most of your time by making your listening experience the most intense one possible. Since attention spans are on the decline, actual listening is rare. Instead, there’s a hearing of background noise while doing something else. The rise of YouTube has exacerbated the issue.

Ideal listening conditions require one to keep all distractions out of reach and out of earshot, allowing as little other sensory input as possible. This means no distractions, no facebooking, no chitchat, no multitasking — leave that to the kitchen while preparing multiple dishes — and listening to entire albums from start to finish. This is most important and cannot be stressed enough. Create a ritual aspect through the act of listening.

Immersing oneself in the depth of an album, one senses the ebb and flow of momentum, the pacing and construction. Also audible are characteristics — you get to see which are effective and why — and one is able to consider the album as a whole, rather than as a collection of similar sounding songs in the same style. Even an average band sequences songs on an album in a particular way for a reason, even if they have not mastered use of theme and leitmotif. The truly great ones lead you on a journey, enable epiphanies, and insights that go beyond music.

When listened to single-mindedly, In the Nightside Eclipse elevates the spirit into the farthest cosmic realms; Farseeing the Paranormal Abysm plays out like a vision of the coming battle before the fact and a return to genesis with clearer, wiser eyes not unlike the role played by the “Bhagavad Gita” in the Mahabharata. Great metal at its best attempts to communicate facets of the ineffable: the vastness and timelessness of the universe, the pervasive nature of the primal life force.

To even begin to experience this, one needs to make a concerted effort at listening. This effort and immersion also reveals which music is timeless, which albums have almost everything in the right place but do not ascend into the pantheon and which are to be hung on a wall for the “collectors” only. A realization dawns about the elements that make albums great, beyond a purely musical value. Superficialities and externalities go out the window. You see into structure, or how all the parts fit together to make a greater whole.

On the other hand, it has become a common tendency to stream a song on YouTube while doodling on Facebook, watching video and playing video games all at once. The best you can hope for there is to pay random attention to how it “sounds,” maybe notice a few hooks or sudden, jarring changes make themselves felt, and declare it a gem. Then jump to the next song on the list of suggestions, repeat procedure. It is no surprise that so many record reviews now are breathless and full of praise yet notice nothing but surface traits of an album.

Casual listening can aid in the initial discovery of bands like you skim a novel you pick up in a bookstore as you decide whether to buy it (or put it on a mental list for later to get from the library). While distracted listening can aid in initial discovery of bands, prolonged reiteration of the same obliterates your ability to distinguish an exceptional album from a merely acceptable one. Listening habits decay and quality of metal declines in parallel. If your time is precious, reward it by listening to only the very best and giving all of yourself to the experience.

Heavy metal as music of rejection, not rebellion


The conventional media narrative regarding heavy metal is that heavy metal is the music of adolescent rebellion. Like the Puritan attitude toward sex, this double-faced approach allows media to both trivialize metal and use it as the basis of product branding, or the identification by consumers of the product with an attitude or social group. This attitude reflects the needs of the media more than what heavy metal actually is.

In branding, metal joins a cluster of products like Jack Daniel’s whisky, Marlboro cigarettes, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and other products that are used in mass culture films, books and music to symbolize rebellion. Much as the media sells sex ambivalently, rebellion is also sold as a duality: it is portrayed as bad, yet fun, and so often the compromise is to avoid it on a regular basis but to cut loose on weekends. Smart observers might realize that’s a great method of control, because by “capturing” the impulse toward anarchy and controlling it, you keep the workers showing up regularly every weekday. Similarly, it’s good advertising because it implies a safe rebellion: the rebellion is there, but it’s a product you can buy anywhere, so it’s socially approved and thus there are no real consequences to face.

But what about those who are dissidents? These see our society as going the wrong way entirely and refuse to participate. Much of this infuses metal through the people it attracts, who are either drop-outs or cutting-edge dissidents, depending on who you ask. As Jeremy Wallach reveals in a post to the Music, Metal and Politics mailing list:

The notion that metal is a cause or a symptom of adolescent psychological development gone awry has been roundly criticized for the last 20+ years not only for its practically nonexistent empirical justification, but more importantly. for its unstated ideological assumptions. Too often the “problem” turned out to be insufficient socialization–of working-class kids who refused to be docile, obedient, and unquestioning, and of middle-class kids who refused to be conformist and hardworking. But rock and roll kids have always been, in Simon Frith’s words, working-class kids who reject work and middle-class kids who reject success.

Zoom in on this: working-class kids who refused to be docile, obedient, and unquestioning, and of middle-class kids who refused to be conformist and hardworking.

In other words, if your parents were expected to work as entirely subservient to the system, you reject that subservience; if your parents were expected to lead within the system, you reject the attitude that allows them to do that without questioning the system.

What we’re seeing here is not rebellion, or disagreement with method, but rejection. These are people rejecting civilization as it is so constituted. This started with Black Sabbath rejecting the idea of “peace, love and happiness” — a once-removed proxy for egalitarianism and coexistence — peaked in speed metal’s warnings of nuclear war and apocalypse, and finally in death and black metal saw acceptance of the apocalypse and subversion of its methods of control and emotional passivity, respectively.

Heavy metal does not tell society that its methods are wrong, but that its approach is wrong. We are those who dream of a different world… one where intangible values triumph over those that are material, social, economic or political. Different generations of heavy metal reflect this dream differently and few seem to be able to articulate it, but it remains beneath the surface, peeking out periodically like divinity in an avatar, hinting at the invisible narrative pervading what we know as “normal” life.

Defending metal before the internet


The Internet grew out of 1960s DARPA projects and has been with us a long time. Most of us however only began to explore it after September 1993 when AOL began mailing out all those free disks that allowed anyone (and they meant, Satan help us, literally anyone) to get on the internet. After that, the Internet became public property.

But before those times, in the days of the late 1970s through early 1990s, the BBS was king. Someone would set up a home computer on a second phone line, install and configure (or hand-code) some software, and then send out the word to others friends on their own BBSs. People traded files and wrote messages to one another, both private (email) and public (forums).

During the later days of that phenomenon, a user named Starmaster opted to defend heavy metal against accusations laid against it in a text-file known as Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth, translated here from the raw text file:


They say it is devil music. They say it is Satanic. They also mention it being the source of many teen-age suicides. Why, do you ask? Well, this file is hopefully going to bring that point to light. Finally, just when you thought everyone was against you, you have found the truth in Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth.

We, the listeners of heavy metal, have been called many a thing. Metalheads, headbangers, pieces of scum. But, why do people continually call us that? Is it because we are a minority among other listeners of music? Is it because they think we deserve it, because we refuse to listen to “their” music? Whatever the reason, for two decades now, people are still believing that everyone who listens to heavy metal is Satanic or something along that line. Have psychologists proven that striking a chord on a guitar with distortion causes the mind to turn into an uncontrollable atmosphere of evil thoughts? I think not, and the reason many think they way they do is because of the lyrics to the songs.

The lyrics are often portrayed as the root of the evil in heavy metal. One might call it is the root of all evil is in the music that the children listen to. The lyrics themselves do not imply anything such as Satan worshiping or suicide. More times than not, the lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. Destruction, corruption, and many things pertaining to the real-time life of people are what cause these rumors of heavy metal. Megadeth for example sing about the destruction of the planet and the corruption and manipulation of a person’s mind. Why would “normal” people listen to the horrors of real-life, when they can live in a fantasy world created by Debbie Gibson?

The harsh reality portrayed in Metallica’s tape And Justice for All is another example of the manipulation and corruption of a politician’s mind. The lyrics often speak of revolution also, such as in Queenryche’s tape Operation: Mindcrime. They imply, “Why should we have to live in a world ruled by those who can afford it, when we could be living in a much better place?” If you have read any of Metallica’s, Megadeth’s or Queensryche’s lyrics, you’ll know where I am coming from.

Another coincidence that is often blamed on heavy metal is suicide. Think about it this way. When real-time life hits you through a song, and you’re not prepared for it, you might just say fuck it, and go off the deep end. People need to be more prepared to face reality when they turn on Megadeth or Nuclear Assault.

The music itself is often and crunching to the mind. One might call it noise, but to those of us who understand it as music, it often resembles the lyrics in many ways. A good example of this is in And Justice for All. When listening to this tape, the music often prepares the listener for a cold and harsh representation of life. Such as in “One,” the intro with the helicopter puts the listener in Vietnam. The music then turns from a sad, painful melody into a hard, cold, highly distorted melody that depicts the character’s hatred toward life. This is a remarkable example of what the music part of the songs is all about. It is to set the mood. Want to live in fantasy? Go listen to Milli Vanilli. Set to take a first class ticket tour through real life? Listen to Metallica.

Slower music sets a nice pace for the slower, less knowledgeable minds. One might call a headbanger “dumb,” but nine times out of ten, the guy will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. It is much harder for a “headbanger” to be brainwashed by politicians because of the music he or she has listened to for years.

If you are a metalhead, read carefully the last few paragraphs. It is the true reason heavy metal, acid rock or whatever you call it, came around. To make people aware and to keep people from being brainwashed into mindless cyborgs that revolve around one who can afford the company. Believe me when I tell you that heavy metal is not all the noise that it seems to be; it is much more than that. It is a way of life to many.

From: Starmaster… To keep those who want to be knowledgeable full of knowledge. And to keep the pricks, pricking.

While this piece may have been written by a non-professional and inexperienced writer, he or she makes some good points. Let’s look at some of the highlights:

  • The lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. This is not protest music, where people complain, or idealistic music, where they sing about what might be. It is descriptive music that portrays the world in a way people cannot see through the fog of consumerism, politics and socialization.
  • The lyrics ask, “Why should we live in a world ruled by commerce, when we could be living in a much better place?” This paraphrase cuts to the core of the underground metal argument: as soon as money shows up, our priorities shift from reality to money and bad results come of that.
  • [The music] often resembles the lyrics. He makes a good point here. Metal’s harsh riffs are often shaped into song by the lyrics, and the two work together. It is as if the music is a delivery system for the lyrics, like ancient Greek theatre where music and drama were used to convey essentially philosophical messages.
  • [A headbanger] will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. This is the actual theme of the piece: politicians/money preach obliviousness and most people choose that path because they’re afraid. Metal is for those who want to go beyond and result the false world created by politics, money and popularity.
  • And to keep the pricks, pricking. This one is up for grabs. If you have a plausible interpretation, post it in the comments.

For what it was, a single text file uploaded onto a BBS somewhere in 1990s America, this document covers a wide range of topics and has a fairly depth-seeking thesis. Perhaps metal was stronger when more people thought like this.